Spotting the wild handler: the clipboard scam

Four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–SCORE!  

There’s this bizarre scam that you see in any heavily touristy area of Paris.  Young women pretending to be deaf wander around with clipboards and try to get you to sign what is allegedly a petition.  When they get someone to sign, one of two things happen:

  1. In the best-case scenario, they hit you up for a “donation.”
  2. In the worst-case scenario, while you’re distracted, someone picks your pocket.

I have always heard that there is a “handler” hanging around, watching them in case of trouble, but I’ve never been able to spot one–until today.

My task was made ridiculously simple by the fact that the little team gathered for a smoke break–right next to me.  I was at the Place St-Michel, sitting on the edge of the fountain enjoying my own fine American tobacco product, when four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–score!  

My level of interest in having this guy figure out that I was filming him was low, and consequently, I didn’t get a great video.  What you’re going to see in the following film: the girls have just successfully scored, and their mark has walked away.  The handler wandered over unobtrusively while they were taking her money, and then walked away–at the beginning of the clip, you see him (gray t-shirt, with a courier bag over his shoulder) walking away “stage right.”  Then he takes up a position leaning–not very unobtrusively at all–against a lamp post.

As they smoked their cigarettes, the women chatted amongst themselves–clearly not deaf.  The guy pretty much ignored them, chatting on a cell phone instead.  In which language?  I don’t know.  I was listening for Bulgarian, Rom, or Romanian–but, what I heard sounded more like a dialect of Arabic.  A mystery, since this is stereotypically a scam perpetrated by Roma, and personally, I don’t know of any scam in Paris associated with Arabs.  (There is a whole ecosystem of scams in the world, with different ethnic groups dominating specific sectors of that ecosystem in Paris.)

I have a lot of respect for the guys that you see all over Paris hustling to sell souvenirs, bottles of water, whatever–they’re just trying to make a living like everyone else, exchanging goods for cash.  I have a fair amount of respect for an inventive beggar, too–begging can be much harder and more creative work than you might imagine, and there are some really good ones.  I have zero respect for people who rip other people off, who scam them; I have less than zero respect for people who scam others not by manipulating their greediness (e.g. with a get-rich-quick scheme), but by taking advantage of their kindness.  That, I think, approaches the lowest of the low: fuck them.


No, the French do not hate Americans

It’s the weekend of the celebration of the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.  I step out on my balcony for a cigarette, and I see a parade of old World War II military vehicles roll down l’Avenue de la Motte-Picquet.  When the American vehicles come, the onlookers cheer and clap.  The French vehicles go by unapplauded.

It’s August in Paris, when there is dancing on the banks of the Seine.  I walk up to a woman and ask her to dance.  She walks into my arms and asks Where are you from?  Later, I ask her how she knew so immediately that I wasn’t French–in France, asking a French person where they’re from is rude, although it’s (mostly) fine for non-French.  (More on this below, in the French notes.)  You hesitated a bit before a word, she said.  Then she thought for a moment more: …and you walked up to me with this directness and openness that I admire in Americans.  

It’s my first time in France, and I don’t speak French. Someone is telling me where to find a specific hotel in Normandy, and says–in English, obviously–That’s where you saved our fucking asses–twice.

No, French people do not hate Americans.

L’Avenue du Président-Kennedy, seen from the Bir-Hakeïm Bridge in Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
L’Avenue Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, Paris. Source: Mbzt [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

French notes

In France, you do not ask a French person where they’re from (vous venez d’où ?).  It’s rude, because the implication is that you don’t really belong in French.  Rather, you ask What region are you from–vous venez de quelle région ?  Point of pride: when I first started spending time in France as a francophone, people would ask me So, you’re an American?  Then, they progressed to Where are you from?, or occasionally So, you’re British/Belgian/German/Suiss?  Now, after 5 years of constant and intensive study of the langue de Molière, I very, very occasionally get what region are you from?  Always warms my heart.

Languages that give you a sore throat

I notice that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: I’m thinking in French.

I’m walking down the street, and in one hand I have a shopping bag containing books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  In the other hand: a shopping bag containing the most disgusting canned food available, ’cause… see the preceding sentence about books that I just paid a week’s-worth of grocery money for.  I realize that my mouth hurts.  Then I realize why: as I walk down the street, I’m thinking in French–but, I haven’t spoken it much lately.

It’s no secret that speaking a language that you don’t typically speak can make your mouth hurt.  I speak Spanish for exactly one week a year, and it always makes my cheeks sore: the kinematics of Spanish are quite different from English and French (my languages of daily life), and the difference is enough to wear out my muscles.  If I haven’t spoken French much for a week or two, my lips get tired: the French (International Phonetic Alphabet [y]) requires more rounding than any sound in English or Spanish.  But, Kaqchikel: Kaqchikel is giving me a sore throat.

I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts (see the English notes below for what in these parts means) means Mayan Indian.  There are 20-22 different Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, plus Spanish and two other non-Mayan Indian languages.  Kaqchikel is one of the four mayoritarias, or “big” Mayan languages, being spoken by around half a million people; in preparation for my week of volunteer work I just spent several hours a day for the preceding two weeks studying it in a local language school.

Part of what makes Kaqchikel sound the way that it does is its ejective consonants.  Those are the “popping” sounds that you hear in the following YouTube video.  Why they “pop:” because of the way that you make the air come out of your mouth when you make them.  Most sounds of language are made with what is called a pulmonic egressive airstream mechanism.  “Airstream mechanism” refers to the way that you make the air flow to make the sound.  Egressive means that when you make the sound, the air flows outward; and pulmonic means that the flow of air is initiated in the lungs.

Ejective consonants are produced by what is known as a glottalic airstream mechanism.  That means that the airflow is powered by closing the vocal folds (vocal chords in non-technical English).  In the case of a glottalic egressive consonant, you put your tongue wherever it goes to make the sound in question, you close your vocal folds, and then you lift your glottis upwards.  This increases the air pressure in the oral cavity, and when you open your mouth to release the sound, that elevated air pressure gives the consonant the characteristic ejective “pop.”

So… why the sore throat?  From clamping my vocal folds shut all day while I’m (trying to) speak Kaqchikel.  Mind you, I already (a) smoke way too much, and (b) spend a lot of my waking hours speaking French, so my voice is already so low that making myself heard by an American without shouting is sometimes difficult.

One week a year I head south to Guatemala, where I do English/Spanish interpretation for Surgicorps, a wonderful group of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians, and therapists who provide free specialty surgical services to people who would not otherwise have access to them.  We buy our own plane tickets and pay for our own hotel rooms.  A donation from you to Surgicorps goes to taking care of our patients, and even a little bit helps—$250 pays all of the surgical expenses for one patient, $25 pays for a pack of instruments, and $10 buys all of the pain-killers that we hand out in a week.  If you enjoy my posts from Guatemala, please consider a donation, large or small–just click here.

English notes

in these partsin this geographical area.  I’m just going to give you one example, in the hopes that you will take the time to watch the very powerful video embedded in the tweet.

How I used it in the post: I spend one week a year volunteering with a group called Surgicorps in Guatemala, a country the size of Tennessee–with 23-25 different languages.  70% of the population is “indígena,” which in these parts means Mayan Indian.  “In these parts” refers back to “Guatemala.”

613 pains: 1 through 5

  1. Pain of hitting your thumb with a hammer.
  2. Pain of stubbing your toe in front of someone you have a crush on.
  3. Pain of hurting your back lifting a heavy object that you could have lifted with no problems just 10 years ago.
  4. Pain of spilling McDonald’s coffee on your hand.
  5. Pain of jamming something sharp under your fingernail.

Once a year I spend a week in Guatemala with Surgicorps, a group of people who provide free surgery for people who have nowhere else to turn.  We give up a week of vacation and buy our own plane tickets, and the surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and therapists in our group give away their very valuable professional services to people who they will never see again and who in most cases don’t even share a language in which to say “thank you.”  Please consider supporting our work with a donation.  $250 pays the complete costs of surgery for one patient, $100 pays for four surgical packs, and $10 pays for all of the pain medications that we will hand out this week.  If you enjoy these posts, please consider making a donation, no matter how small–your money will go a long way here in Guatemala.

The “613 pains” idea comes from the novel Everything is illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, and its “613 sadnesses.”  The book tells the story of a young man who goes back to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis; 613 is a special number in Judaism, being the number of commandments in the Bible.  The photograph is taken from the Surgicorps Facebook page.  Hey–have I hit you up for a donation yet?


How to write a personal statement for a grad school application

There is a bit of an art to writing a personal statement for a graduate school application. Here’s how to do it.

Applying to a graduate program means filling out a lot of paperwork–and writing a thing or two yourself. One of those things is called a personal statement, and there is a bit of an art to writing one.  Here’s some advice for doing it.

The first thing to know about a personal statement is this: it’s not actually personal.  Your goal in a “personal statement” is not to tell the admissions committee who you are “as a person,” but rather to take advantage of this opportunity to speak to them to show that you would be a good fit for their program.

What that means: you want the admissions committee member who is reading your statement to finish saying this to themself: oh–they could work with our faculty member Dr. Zipf [insert some actual faculty member of the institution in question, unless you’re applying to my institution].   (The pronoun themself is explained in the English notes below.)

How you lead them to that happy conclusion: don’t tell them, but show them.  Here are some things that you can do:

  1. State that you are interested in one or two specific areas of research of that department.
  2. State that you became interested in the/those topic when doing a research project on that topic…
  3. or, if you have not done research on that topic, then that you got interested in it/them while doing research on some other topic and coming across a paper on the topic by some member of the faculty of the department to which you are applying.
  4. List some areas of specialization within that topic or some related topics that you would be interested in working on, where those specializations or related topics are actually areas of research that members of the department to which you are applying work within.

Why I say one or two: you very much want to avoid a situation where (a) only one person in the department works on a topic, and (b) you don’t know it, but that person is getting ready to retire/move to another institution/begin a three-year period as the Associate Dean for Reproducibility, or something.  You avoid that situation by either (a) talking about a topic that two or more people in the department actually work on, or (b) talking about more than one topic.

Now, you may be asking yourself: what if I can’t find anyone in the department who works on my area of interest? The answer:

If you cannot find anyone in the department who works in your area of interest, then that department is not a good fit for you.

…and that’s exactly what the department wants to know.  In fact, if you apply to a graduate school and they don’t accept you, it is entirely reasonable to assume until proven otherwise that they’re not rejecting you, but just don’t see their department as the right place for you.

Need to know how to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school?

Click here.

This post is written on the basis of my time on the admissions committee of a medium-sized graduate program in computational biology.  If you have other perspectives/opinions on the subject, please add them to the comments below!

English notes

When you get deep into the weeds of the English language, one of the things that you run into is dialectal variation in pronoun use.  For example:

Dative pronouns in conjoined subject noun phrases: In the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, if you have a subject with two more people joined by a conjunction (e.g. and or or), then the pronouns are in the dative form, not the subject form.  For example, look at these contrasts:

  • I’m going to the store.  (subject)
  • He’s going to the store.  (subject)
  • Me and him are going to the store. (dative)
  • Him and me are going to the store. (dative)
  • Anaïs is going to the store. (subject)
  • They are going to the store. (subject)
  • Anaïs and them are going to the store. (dative)

Even in the Pacific Northwest, you don’t have to talk this way–it’s pretty regionally specific, and people will understand you just fine if you say he and I are going to the store.  But, if you are in that part of the country, you have to be able to understand it.

Atypical reflexive pronouns: Other oddnesses have to do with the reflexive forms of pronouns.  For example, in my dialect, the third-person plural forms they/them/their are used if you don’t know the gender of the referent.  Straightforward enough–that usage goes back centuries in English. But: in a reflexive context (i.e. when the subject is doing something to itself or for itself), you get a variety of forms, depending on number:

  1. You want the admissions committee member who is reading your statement to finish saying this to themself: oh–they could work with our faculty member Dr. Zipf [insert some actual faculty member of the institution in question, unless you’re applying to my institution].  That is obscure enough that it does not even show up in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
  2. My aunt and uncle bought themselves a new copy of the compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary. This plural form is totally standard American English.
  3. My aunt and uncle each bought themselfs a new pair of sunglasses. …and that one, again, does not show up in Merriam-Webster.

This raises a question: how would someone who doesn’t speak a dialect like this say (1) and (3)? I’m pretty sure that in (3), they would say themselves.  But, (1)?  I don’t know another way of saying it–native speakers?

The picture at the top of this post is of Oxley Hall on the Ohio State University campus. I had the pleasure of getting a master’s degree in linguistics there in the 1990s. Mostly we hung out in the basement analyzing spectrograms, but we would occasionally sneak up into the tower.  Fun.


Jokes that can’t be translated

Sucking the joy out of language for 30 years

Things written in [square brackets] are in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

French: A farmer in Picardy takes his pig to the vet.  The vet says to him: c’est tatoué?  The farmer says: ben sûr c’est à mwé!

English: What’s black and white and [rɛd] all over?  A newspaper.

American Spanish: How is a cat like a priest? Ambos [kasan].  

The French joke relies on a regional dialect where oi is at least sometimes pronounced wé rather than wa.  The vet asks the farmer is it tattooed? in standard French, but the farmer understands it in the regional dialect as is it yours?, and answers of course it’s mine!

The English joke relies on the homophony between the color red and the past tense of the verb to read.  This riddle puzzled the shit out of me when I was a small child, which in retrospect I should have realized meant that I was never going to be a very good linguist.

The Spanish joke relies on the American Spanish non-distinction between the pronunciation of and s.  (“American Spanish” means Spanish as spoken in the Americas, i.e. South, Central, and North America.)  A cat casa (hunts), while a priest caza (marries).  They’re written differently, and in Spain (and maybe some upper-class American dialects, but I can’t swear to it) are pronounced differently, but they’re pronounced the same in the Americas.

Sucking the joy out of language since 1989,

Beauregard Zipf

English notes

vet: This word can mean two things in American English:

  • veterinarian, as in the joke.  Examples:
    • took my dog to the vet just to find out he’s sick af (af = “as fuck,” an adverb meaning “a lot”)
    • My dog hates going to the vet.
    • Ask a cat vet online now
  • veteran, or former member of the military.  Examples:
    • She and other vets said there’s frustration that the President is quick to claim credit for successes and happy to bask in the reflection of the military’s luster but doesn’t follow through on tough issues. 
    • Vets groups decry hatred, racism in wake of Charlottesville violence (Source: headline here.  Charlottesville is a city in North Carolina where the president of the United States of America defended a white supremacist rally at which an anti-racism protester was killed.)
    • The veteran’s voice is crucial to changing the hate rhetoric directed at Muslims. “When I served in the United States Marine Corps, I took an oath to the Constitution of the United States. There is a First Amendment, which respects religious tolerance and freedom of speech,” stated John Amidon, Vietnam vet and member of Veterans For Peace.

Picture source:

What computational linguists actually do all day: The variable reuse edition

I know, I know–computational linguistics seems like the most glamorous job in the world, right?

Dearly Beloved Colleagues,

I just spent several frustrating hours trying to fix a bug in my code.  In the end, the bug was purely a logic bug, and it was purely the product of poor variable-naming.

Code is the instructions that you write in a computer language, for a program to execute.

Here’s what happened.  I’m writing the world’s simplest script–I just need to read in some files that contain values for features for individual files–or, to put it better: for individual papers that I want to classify.

script is a kind of computer program, typically one that does a relatively simple task.

…and, with that, I think you can already guess what happened.  I was opening files that contained features that I had extracted from other files, and I reused a variable name.  Consequently, once my script reached some critical length, I could no longer keep track in my own head of the code that I was editing.  So, my test cases found a simple bug, and in the process of fixing that bug, I got myself so confused that I was mixing up the “files” in the sense of “papers that I’m classifying” and the “files” in the sense of “files containing feature values from papers,” and the next thing you know, several hours have gone by.

variable is something in a computer program whose value can be changed.  It’s the opposite of a constant, which is something whose value cannot be changed.  For example, the number is a constant–its value will always be 3.  On the other hand, a computer program might contain something called length_of_word, intended to store the length of some word that you’re looking at, and that length could be anything, in principle.  (Really?  How about 0?  Or a negative number?  This kind of unstated assumption is one way that computer programs can go wrong.)

This is one of those things that gets fixed by (1) printing out my code on actual paper, noticing the same variable name in two clearly-marked-off-as-different sections of the code, and thinking “Zipf, you might be even more stupid than you knew…”; (2) sitting in the Philadelphia sun with a pack of cigarettes and a quality zombie novel for a while (Déchirés, by Peter Stenson–the zombie apocalypse comes and the only people who survive are meth addicts–I think you can come to your own conclusion about the metaphor a lot quicker than I fixed my code); and then (3) you go back and look at the code and you see immediately how you managed to confuse the heck out of yourself.

My error here was in reusing my variable to store two different kinds of information.  This is a classic error in computer programming. I either didn’t notice that I was doing it when I moved from the first part of the program to the second part, or more likely, noticed it but didn’t think that it would be a problem because the script was relatively short and simple.  The problem with variable reuse is not for the program itself; rather, the problem is for the programmer, because variable reuse is a great way to confuse yourself.  That’s exactly what I did–bad Zipf, bad!

Happy Saturday from Penn Student Housing, where either the kid in D3 is going to stop throwing rotting chicken in the communal trash can or he’s going to wake up with it in his bed,


I notice that I’ve been writing a lot of whiny posts about computational linguistics lately.  In fact I LOVE my job, enough so that I am probably one of the happiest people you know–or don’t know.  Want the English-language version of Déchirés?  Here it is: Fiend.  I read it three times in English before I read it in French, so it MUST be good, right?